China’s navy and coastguard stage first joint patrols near disputed South China Sea islands as ‘warning to Vietnam’

Foreign ships expelled from waters off Paracel Islands in show of strength after Vietnamese subsidiary of Russian oil firm Rosneft started drilling nearby

PUBLISHED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2018, 7:31am
UPDATED : Tuesday, 22 May, 2018, 7:31am

China expelled at least 10 foreign fishing vessels in the first joint patrol staged by the Chinese navy and coastguard in the disputed waters of the Paracel Islands in the South China Sea, state media has reported.

News of the patrol, reported by the official military media on Sunday, came after China landed long-range bombers for the first time last week on an unspecified island reef in the South China Sea.

Beijing’s latest moves, according to Chinese analysts, are intended to serve as a warning to Hanoi following news that a Vietnamese subsidiary of a Russian state oil firm had started drilling in an area that China also claims.

China angers US by landing bombers on South China Sea reef

A report published on Sunday on the website of the People’s Liberation Army Daily said the joint patrol team “spotted and inspected” some 40 ships and drove out over 10 foreign fishing boats in the area as part of efforts to “effectively safeguard [China’s] maritime interest”.

Vessels from the navy, coastguard and local authorities, took part in the five-day patrol, said the report.

“If we discover a foreign military vessel, our navy vessels can immediately deal with it; if we discover foreign fishing vessels violate the law, our coastguard ships can enforce the law,” said Hou Jianjun, a commander of the joint patrol team.

In March China shifted control of its civilian coastguard to the paramilitary police, which is under the command of the military’s governing Central Military Commission.

Ni Lexiong, a naval expert at the Shanghai University of Political Science and Law, said Beijing’s recent moves are intended to be a “pre-emptive” move to warn against any challenge to China’s claims.

“Vietnam recently has been eager to make some moves on oil drilling with Russia in the South China Sea. We need to forestall any further moves,” said Ni.

Rosneft Vietnam, the local unit of Russia’s state-owned Rosneft, began drilling in Vietnamese-controlled waters claimed by China last week, but expressed concerns that the drilling area could fall within the“nine-dash line” that marks the area claimed by Beijing.

Chinese tourists ordered to take off T-shirts at Vietnam airport

China’s foreign ministry said on Thursday that such oil drilling was forbidden without permission from the Chinese government, and urged the relevant parties to “respect China’s sovereign and jurisdictional rights and not do anything that could impact bilateral relations and regional peace and stability”.

Zhang Bohui, an expert on Asia affairs with Hong Kong’s Lingnan University, said China’s decision to hold such patrol around the Paracels, instead of the more widely disputed Spratlys archipelago, also shows China’s intention to keep a low profile and avoid angering other countries.

“It would involve a lot more other countries if China chose to enforce the law in the Nansha Islands [China’s name for the Spratlys],” said Zhang, “China’s strategy towards the Nansha claimants is still to win over them to China’s side.”

He added that because of the close ties between Beijing and Moscow, the involvement of the Russian company would also makes China more cautious in its response.

“Because [Rosneft] is not Western company … and if the oil drilling take place within Vietnam’s 200 nautical miles, China is likely to be more lenient in its response.”